The Missouri Valley Conference women’s basketball tournament opens Friday at the iWireless Center in Moline, and without one dominant team, the championship is anyone’s for the taking.
The Valley’s top four teams entered the final weekend within a half game of each other. With no teams in the top 90 of the NCAA Rating Percentage Index, the MVC will likely only receive one bid in the NCAA Tournament.
“There’s so much balance in this league,” said Drake coach Jenny Baranczyk. “You’ve got to be able to defend the ball. You’ve got to be able to rebound the ball, and you’ve got to be able to score and have balance. That’s what I think our league has been able to do all year.”
Drake (21-8, 14-4) is the second seed in the conference tournament and was 1-1 versus the Salukis this season.
Southern Illinois (19-11, 12-6 MVC) enters the tournament as the No. 4 seed and will face No. 5 Loyola (14-15, 10-8) at 2:34 p.m. Friday. The Ramblers were the only team to sweep the Salukis in the regular season.
“Everyone’s been telling our team how they got beat twice by Loyola,” SIU coach Cindy Stein said. “I just want people to continue talking about that, because, obviously, it ticks us off a little bit.”
The Salukis have three players — junior point guard Rishonda Napier, senior guard Cartaesha Macklin and senior center Dyana Pierre — who were named to the All-MVC first team.
Their task will be to stop Loyola’s two first teamers, junior guard Taylor Johnson and junior forward Taylor Manuel.
“I don’t know if anyone in our league has stopped them yet,” Stein said. “If you watch all their games, those two have dominated every single game. We’ve got to play better defense. They got us back on our heels the second game at their place, and we know that they’ll look to continue that type of attack.”
The Ramblers’ two Taylors combined to average 30.3 of Loyola’s 65.1 points per game in the regular season — the third-highest percentage of points by two players in the conference.
In contrast, only Indiana State relied less heavily on its top two scorers than SIU. Napier and Macklin contributed 28.4 of the Salukis’ 69.0 points per game.
Each of the top-four teams in the MVC beat at least three of the other top-five teams during the regular season. Loyola came within a regulation basket of beating Missouri State in a Feb. 12 overtime loss, which would have given the Ramblers the same such distinction.
After a 6-25 campaign in 2014-15, Loyola’s 4-7 nonconference record prevented it from finishing the 2015-16 regular season with a winning record. The Ramblers’ signature win of the season came Dec. 21 in an 88-75 win over No. 15 DePaul, which beat SIU 105-61 Nov. 13.
“We match up with Southern very well,” Loyola coach Sheryl Swoopes said. “They match up with us very well. There aren’t a lot of teams in the Valley that have a true center like we do in Manuel and they do in Pierre. I think it’s going to be one of those games where the team that comes out … playing their best basketball is probably the team that’s going to come out on top.”
Northern Iowa (20-9, 15-3) enters the tournament as the top seed. The Panthers swept their season series with Drake, but split with No. 3 Missouri State (21-9, 14-4), SIU and Loyola.
UNI will put its eight-game winning streak on the line when it faces the winner of No. 8 Wichita State (8-21, 5-13) and No. 9 Bradley (8-21, 4-14) on Friday. The Panthers were a combined 4-0 against the Shockers and Braves in the regular season, winning by an average of 16 points per game.
Coach Tanya Warren said her team cannot afford to rest on the strength of those victories.
“Everyone’s coming in 0-0,” Warren said. “It’s a new season, and anything can happen. We have to be able to understand that what happened in the regular season has nothing to do with this tournament.”
It all starts with Wichita State and Bradley at 4:04 p.m. Thursday in Moline.
Thomas Donley can be reached at [email protected] or at 618-536-3307